Note from Reena: It’s difficult to figure out what is in your wine besides grape juice, and not just because labels provide limited information. Most people who work in wine shops don’t have this data, either. Sulfites are the only potential allergen required to be disclosed on labels in the U.S — but only if the wine will be sold across state lines; imported wines vary from country to country. That may change soon, as growing public interest fuels a push for wine labels to become more informative. Until they help us out up front, the following article, reprinted with permission from certified nutritionist Carol Chuang, can help us understand what to look for (beside the price tag) to find wines with fewer additives and great taste to accompany our healthy meals.
What’s In Your Wine
By Carol Chuang, MS, CNS, CMTA, FDN
Many people love wine. For those who enjoy this beverage, it may be deemed as one of life’s great pleasures. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest known production of wine, made by fermenting grapes, took place possibly as early as 6,000 BC.
Most of us have heard that red wine contains a chemical called resveratrol which has cardio protective benefits. We also know that drinking too much can cause cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism. However, the topic of this article is not about how alcohol affects your health. It is about what you may not know that exists inside your bottle of wine.
No matter whether you are drinking a $200 bottle of French wine or merely a Two-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s, has it ever occurred to you that you may be ingesting pesticides, heavy metals, and a whole sleuth of additives? If you are already trying to stay healthy by buying grass-fed meats and organic fruits and vegetables, why would you not worry about what you drink on a regular basis, or several times a week?
In the following, we will look at some shocking information about what may be present in your wine and how to pick wine that does not contain these unsavory ingredients.
9 Out Of 10 French Wines Contain Pesticides
The wine trade journal, Decanter, reports a recent study of more than 300 French wines that only 10% of those tested were clean of any traces of pesticides and fungicides. Although all of the individual pesticide residues appeared at levels below limits set by the French environmental agency, some samples turned up with as many as 9 separate pesticides!
In France, vineyards represent just 3% of agricultural land but the wine industry accounts for 80% of fungicide use. The most worrying part is that even though individual molecules were below threshold levels of toxicity, there is a lack of research into the long-term accumulation effect and how the molecules may interact with each other – which means, a pesticide mix may be more toxic than the sum of its parts.
Another survey by Pesticide Action Network Europe found similar results. All the conventional wines included in the analysis contained pesticides, with one containing 10 different pesticides!
What about American wines? Unfortunately, there is hardly any study of this sort for domestically produced wines; but like in France, conventional viticulture in the U.S. tends to be fairly pesticide-intensive too.
Additionally, don’t forget that grapes are on the Dirty Dozen list, being one of the top 12 produce with the most pesticide residue. Winemakers generally do not wash the grapes before pulping them, so all the pesticides found on the average grape will likely end up inside your wine glass.
Heavy Metals Found in Wine
Heavy metals are widely dispersed in the environment. The presence of heavy metals in our food chain poses immense problems to health. These metals accumulate in our organs and overtime promote oxidative damage in cells, a key part of chronic inflammation which may lead to cancer and many other degenerative diseases.
In 2008, a study by Kingston University in London analyzed wines from 15 countries throughout Europe, South America, and the Middle East. It found that many wines contain heavy metals up to 200 times the amount considered safe. The metal ions that accounted for most of the contamination were vanadium, copper, and manganese. But four other metals with above safety levels were zinc, nickel, chromium, and lead.
THQ, or Target Hazard Quotient, is a risk assessment system developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designed to determine the safe levels of frequent, long-term exposure to various chemicals and compounds. A THQ value of 1 is considered safe. Values over 1 indicate a health risk.
The study found that typical wines have THQs ranging from 50 to 200 per glass, but some wines had THQs exceeding 300. To provide some perspective, seafood considered dangerous usually falls between a THQ of 1 and 5.
The worst wines were from Hungary and Slovakia which had THQs exceeding 350. Wines from France, Austria, Spain, Germany, and Portugal registered THQs over 100. Wines from Italy, Brazil, and Argentina showed safe metal levels.
What about U.S. wines? Again, there is hardly any data available concerning the contamination of domestic wines.
However, a 2011 Consumer Report which tested 88 samples of apple juice and grape juice purchased in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut found that 10% of those samples had total arsenic levels exceeding federal drinking-water standards of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and 25% had lead levels higher than the 5 ppb limit for bottled water set by the Food and Drug Administration. If heavy metals like arsenic and lead were to be found in apple juice and grape juice, you would have to expect some will probably find their way to the wine too.
Hidden Additives And Allergens In Wine
Most people who are not involved in winemaking may not be aware that the production of wine actually involves a great amount of additives. In the old days, the original intention of using additives was to stabilize the wine and to make it last longer. But nowadays, winemaking is as sophisticated as food processing, whereby a whole arsenal of synthetic chemicals are utilized to correct and manipulate the products of mother nature in good and bad years. Such performance enhancers can improve body and mouth feel, take away the greenness of a wine, mask defects, deepen color, and add flavors.
American wine producers are not required to list additives in their wines – the only exception issulfites when the level exceeds 10 ppm in the finished wine. Sulfites are used to kill unwanted bacteria and yeasts and help preserve and protect the wine from oxidation. All wines contain at least some levels of sulfites, which occur naturally during winemaking. In spite of that, conventional wines often have artificial sulfites added to them. Most wine has about 150 ppm of sulfites, some as high as 350 ppm.
People with sulfite sensitivity are more likely to be triggered by the high levels of artificial sulfites. Symptoms range from headaches, runny nose, hives, to closing down of the airway, which can become life-threatening.
Other potential allergens in wine include:
Histamines and tannins. Histamines come from grape skins and tannins from grape stems, seeds, and skins. For people who are sensitive, they may produce bad headaches or aggravate seasonal allergies.
Wheat and gluten. The wine itself is gluten-free but the paste of flour and water that is used to seal new oak barrels may be problematic for people who are extremely gluten sensitive.
Egg whites, casein (from milk), and isinglass (a fish derivative). These are fining agents mixed into wine during production, then removed by filtration or sedimentation. Depending on the person’s sensitivity, each of these substances can potentially unleash severe allergies.
Yeast. It is a fungus added to ferment the sugars in wine, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. People who suffer from candidiasis, colitis, or Crohn’s disease should stay away from drinking wine.
Reading Organic Wine Labels
Now that you know what may have gone into the wine that you drink, and if you do enjoy a glass of wine regularly, you should be concerned about the long-term effects of ingesting various toxins. The good news is there are healthier alternatives. That is why many have switched to organic wines. The following explains how to buy organic wines and what the different wine labels mean.
“Made with Organic Grapes” – The wine contains at least 70% organically grown ingredients (the rest is not organic). A vineyard cannot label its grapes organic until it has completed three growing seasons without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Sulfites may be added, but it may not go above 100 ppm.
“Organic Wine” – The wine contains at least 95% organically grown ingredients (the rest is not organic). No sulfites are added, but the wine can contain naturally occurring sulfites, usually in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 ppm. The bottle bears the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) organic seal.
“100% Organic Wine” – The wine contains 100% organically grown ingredients. Only organically produced aids can be used. No sulfites are added, but the wine can contain naturally occurring sulfites, usually in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 ppm. The bottle bears the USDA organic seal.
“Biodynamic Wine” – This is the best organic wine you can get. Not only is it 100% organic, the vineyard also takes sustainability well beyond shunning pesticides and chemicals. Unlike organic farming, which often simply replaces synthetic fertilizers and herbicides with naturally-derived products, biodynamic farmers build soil fertility and manage pests by encouraging biodiversity among crops and by using specially prepared farm-generated outputs like composted animal manures, plants, and minerals. They also aim to conserve natural resources such as water and soil.
Modern biodynamic farming is based on agricultural principles proposed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, as a reaction to the declining soil fertility and crop quality due to the adoption of industrial farming techniques like monoculture and synthetic fertilizers. A vineyard cannot legally refer to its farming practices or products as biodynamic without meeting the USDA organic requirements and being certified by the non-profit Demeter Association.
Once the vineyard is certified as biodynamic, its grapes are considered biodynamic. However, the wine cannot be labeled as biodynamic unless it goes through Demeter’s secondary verification program for processed agricultural products. To ensure you are purchasing a biodynamic wine, look for the statement saying that both the vineyard and the wine have been Demeter-certified. Beware that many vineyards may claim to practice biodynamic farming but they have no Demeter certification.
“Natural Wine” – These vineyards cannot back up their eco-friendly claims with federal laws or certification programs. They are usually smaller operations that cannot afford the high cost of achieving organic and biodynamic certifications. Nevertheless, many natural winemakers practice sustainability and process their wine with as little intervention as possible, avoiding additives like sugar, sulfites, and acidifiers, as well as technological manipulations such as spinning cones to remove alcohol and micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging. Check with the vineyard to learn about its natural practices before making your purchase decision.
“Vegan Wine” – Most winemakers use ingredients derived rom animals such as egg whites, caseins, or gelatin from fish bladders or cow and pig hooves to remove solid impurities like grape skins and yeast from the fermentation process. With vegan wines, winemakers usually process the wine manually or use minerals like bentonite or kaolin instead.
“Vin Biologique” – Organic wine from Europe.
Where To Buy Organic And Biodynamic Wine
The obvious places to shop for organic wine are health food stores, speciality markets, and gourmet shops. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s both carry a number of organic wines.
Bear in mind that in the world of organic wine there are some fantastic, high quality organic and biodynamic wines being made by passionate organic winemakers. Some are proud to communicate their organic values by labeling their wine organic. Yet, many more do not label their wine organic because they want to compete in the broader wine market purely on taste and without being pigeonholed. For this very reason these unlabeled organic wines will not show up in the organic section.
Therefore, it is always worthwhile to do some research to find out which vineyards practice such eco-friendly methods. You will be amazed by the growing selection from both the old and new worlds.
The following are the 79 members of Demeter USA (updated in July 2013): http://www.demeter-usa.org/downloads/Demeter-Winery-Vineyard-List.pdf
The following are 529 natural and biodynamic wine producers from all over the world. The list was compiled by Fork & Bottle and last updated in Sept. 2009: http://www.forkandbottle.com/wine/biodynamic_producers.htm
© Carol Chuang 2013
Carol Chuang has an MS degree in Nutrition from Huntington College of Health Sciences. She decided to study nutrition because, as a layman, “I was confused about all the contradictory information out there about what to eat,” she said. She wanted to find out for herself and now counsels individuals, writes a monthly nutrition newsletter and conducts seminars about nutrition and wellness. Visit her website
for more information.